Friday, July 13, 2012

A Few Things You Didn't Know About Hydration




Daniel Sundqvist sent this photo yesterday from the Hiker’s Haute Route. Here, one of our lovely young guests pauses for a water break before continuing her hike through Switzerland and the Pennine Alps.

You can almost feel the refreshment and the cool mountain air just by looking at this photo. But don’t let that hose fool you! In the Alps, many of the spigots, hoses, and watering holes find their source in artesian wells deep underground. You won’t taste city-bred floro-chloro laundry runoff coming out of that hose. No way! That hose carries the nectar of the high Alps. It’s pure mountain spring water.

While we’re on the subject of water, let's take a moment to address a topic that is extremely important during a hiking tour, hydration. As trip leaders, we’re constantly telling our guests, “Stay hydrated. Drink water. Drink water. Drink water.” We’ve all heard it. We know it’s important, but how important is it, really?

Here are a few surprising facts. According to the Wilderness Medicine Institute of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), when your body is down merely 1.5 liters, your endurance may be reduced 22 percent and your maximum oxygen uptake (a measure of heart and lung efficiency) can be lowered by 10 percent. Down 3 to 4 liters can knock your endurance down to 50% and reduce your oxygen uptake by almost 25%!

Every wonder why your hiking partner, who never trains as much as you do, just dropped you on your favorite climb? Maybe she's not naturally gifted. Maybe you just didn’t drink enough water. Think she's heard that before?

Estimates vary widely, but I’ve heard it stated many times that the an average person at rest on a normal day loses between 2 and 3 liters of water just by sitting around. Put another way, without replenishment, that’s already a 22-50% drop in endurance just by doing nothing! Add strenuous exercise to the mix, and the fluid loss increases by 50% or more.

Think you can just down a two-liter of water and everything will be fine? Think again. It takes about one hour to put one liter of fluid back into circulation. If you're two liters down, you'll need at least two more hours to bring your body back to level. (Not including any additional fluid loss during that time). So drink early, and drink often. Have a tall glass of water as soon as you wake up in the morning. Even when you think you’re drinking enough water, you probably aren’t.

Camelbacks, like the one that you see in this photo, have gone a long way toward helping hikers stay hydrated. I know from personal experience that I tend to drink more when I have that little blue tube dangling in front of my mouth. The camelback is easy to fill, and it’s a pleasure to use. You can even pull the reservoir out, and use it with different packs, making it extremely versatile. There is a drawback to all that water sipping, however.

We don’t see this very often, but you can actually drink TOO much water. The condition is called Hyponatremia, and it results from drinking copious amounts of water without enough salt. We lose a lot of salt (and a host of other trace minerals) when we perspire, and when blood sodium gets too low, we begin to develop symptoms that feel a lot like dehydration and heat exhaustion. We get headaches; weakness; fatigue; lightheadedness and we might even experience nausea. The symptoms vary among individuals, but if you’ve ever experienced hyponatremia, then you probably found yourself wondering why you drank lots of water all day, but you still felt like crap.

For myself, I know that I’m getting sodium or mineral deficient when the water that I drink stops quenching my thirst. That, or I start craving salty snacks like French fries and pretzels.

So what to do?

One easy way to stay hydrated, but also keep on top of your salt supply, is to carry a bottle of electrolyte drinks. There are a ton of electrolyte drink products out there, and the one that I like comes from a company called Trace Minerals Research. They make an Electrolyte Stamina Power Pak that is less sugary and not so artificially colored or flavored as other brands on the market. The drink comes in a little powder packet, and you simply mix it into your water botttle, camelback, gin bottle, whatever. I like to reserve my camelback for pure, clean mountain spring water, so I usually mix the Power Pak in a backup Sigg or Nalgene bottle and carry that in addition to the Camelback. Overkill? Perhaps. The electrolyte mixture leaves a residue that permanently changes the flavor of your bottle. For me, it’s nice to have one bottle devoted to electrolyte drinks. On my road bike, I have one bottle filled with clear water and one filled with electrolytes.

Natural alternatives. There’s been a lot of buzz lately surrounding coconut water. Some people call it “Mother Nature’s Mega-Electrolyte Drink.” I tried it, and I find it extremely sweet. Maybe you’d like it. Give it a whirl and let us know what you think.

One other note: A little bit of salt goes a long way. A handful of salty nuts, mid hike, will do the trick. Don’t plan on downing a bag of potato chips at every water stop, though, or you might end up with serious high blood pressure down the road. Everything in balance, that’s the key.

Wrapping things up, here are our tips:

  1. Drink plenty of water. Lots of it, in fact-especially if it’s hot or during periods of strenuous and/or extended exercise. Getting just a little behind in your water consumption can seriously affect your endurance during the course of the day. (A 22%-50% drop)!
  2. Camel backs make it easy to stay hydrated. Any type of water bladder that slips into your pack with a drinking tube will do the trick. Go for it. Take a sip and keep on sipping!
  3. Replenish your electrolytes. They keep you going strong and feeling great.

We’d love to hear your hydration stories. Got a system that works well for you? Ever dried up on the trail and been eaten by buzzards? Drop us a line.

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